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SMARTER H2020: breeding small ruminants to make raising livestock more sustainable

For the past two years, teams at INRA’s Occitanie-Toulouse centre have been working with stakeholders from around the world on the SMARTER project. Their proposal to study genetic selection to increase resilience and efficiency in small ruminants in their local environments has just been accepted for the European H2020 programme.

A herd of Lacaune dairy sheep at INRA’S La Fage experimental farm. The farm is located along the Causse du Larzac plateau and is an experimental site for dairy sheep for INRA’s Animal Genetics division.. © INRA, MAITRE  Christophe
Updated on 04/17/2018
Published on 03/23/2018

Animals suited to extreme environments

Small ruminants such as sheep and goats, which are found in mountainous and very hilly regions, naturally adapt to extreme conditions. They have a certain natural resilience and are able to maintain or quickly recover milk production and good health after exposure to various nutritional deficiencies and diseases. Raising these animals can make use of disadvantaged regions where no other livestock or crops can be raised.

A lack of innovation and appeal

Today, sheep and goat farms suffer from a lack of innovation and appeal, especially when it comes to breeding for animal efficiency, which is an ability to better use available food resources (mobilising reserves, limiting methane emissions, etc.). During periods of extreme climate conditions, farmers sometimes supplement animals’ diets with cereals, which have high, fluctuating prices. This leads to conflict between the resources that are necessary to feed both people and animals.
Genetic selection can be used to address these various issues by integrating phenotype selection for resilience and adaptation to large farms.

SMARTER: an international, multi-actor project

With these observations as a starting point, a group of actors have been meeting since 2016 to develop the SMARTER project (SMAll RuminanTs breeding for Efficiency and Resilience), which has just been approved. Over a four-year period (2018–23), these 26 academic and non-academic partners from 13 countries will collaborate to develop genetic selection for small ruminants to improve both their efficiency and resilience.
INRA researchers working on this project are part of several units at the Occitanie-Toulouse centre (see figures below), and especially the GenPhySE unit (Genetics, Physiology and Livestock Systems), which is among the coordinators.

Genetic selection in agroecology systems

This research will involve identifying genetic criteria linked to the expression of the target traits (efficiency and resilience), improving and developing tools, and proposing technological selection strategies.
Using an agroecology approach, the researchers plan to use selection to limit the use of concentrated feeds and plant protection products to reduce the environmental impact of raising small ruminants. Particular attention will be paid to studying traits for well-being and health as well as those that allow measurement of local feed resource use efficiency (pasturing, foraging, industry by-products).

Project partners

. © INRA
© INRA

Key figures

  • 2 years of preparation for 4 years of research during the 2018–23 period
  • €7 m
  • 26 partners (in 13 countries), 50% of which are non-academic
  • 4 INRA divisions: Animal Genetics (GA), Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems (PHASE), Animal Health (SA), Science for Action and Sustainable Development (SAD)
  • 9 INRA units, including 2 experimental units (GenPhySE, MoSAR, IHAP, PRC, UMRH, SelMet, AGIR, Bourges, La Fage)
  • 8 GenPhySE teams (GeSPR, MG2, DYNAGEN, GenROC, NED, SYSED, IA +SAF) + the Joint Technology Unit UMT-GPR
  • 46 breeds covering 20% of goats and sheep in the EU = an impact on 70% of these animal populations
  • 5,000 livestock farmers and 1,500,000 sheep and goats will be directly impacted
  • Massive use of existing data: 500,000 phenotyped animals + 70,000 genotyped animals